We’ve documented the story – or at least examined the fall-out from it – behind Joan Lindsay’s 1969 novel, Picnic At Hanging Rock (read that here). There’s no doubt that the tale of four missing convent girls at the dawn of the 20th century caused a stir in Australia, and even today there’s discussion and conjecture about what Lindsay set out to achieve with her novel. Presented in a documentary fashion, many believed – and still do today – that the story was true. Others argued that it was social commentary about the relationship between the privileged, Victorian society and sacred, indigenous ground.
Many will remember Peter Weir’s soft-focus masterpiece from the 1970s, so this new, six-part adaptation (shown first on Showcase in Australia and then Amazon in the US) will have to go some to even get anywhere near that mark.
Instead, this version imported many modern elements into its approach. There was modern music, jump-cuts, flashbacks (of a sort) and even dream sequences. There was also a splash of neon pink in the opening credits.
And yet, this mystery story with supernatural elements deserved a more elegant telling. With all its bells and whistles, I’m not sure it achieved that.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Mrs Appleyard (Natalie Dormer) is dressed in all her mourning finery, inspecting a grand house in Australia. As a fawning estate agent tries to broker a deal, we hear an inner monologue from Mrs Appleyard – quite different from the rigid Victorian deportment and clipped vowels of the upper classes. The voice in her head is pure working-class Cockney, admonishing her, saying that he’ll never find her here.
Straight away, we don’t know who Mrs Appleyard is, and straight away we know that there’s another side to her.
Having bought the house, time lurches forward. Suddenly it’s a school for teenage girls, unruly teenage girls, and Appleyard is the governess. All bright, almost Steampunk Victorian clothes, her grip on the girls is an iron one. Dormer, as we know from her time in The Tudors, The Fades and Game Of Thrones, is very good at playing duplicitous characters and here she seems to be enjoying being a hard taskmistress to her students, who have popped up from all over Australia. The trouble is we’re given no real context from where these girls have come from or why – one minute it’s an empty house, the next it’s full. And of course, we have no idea of the motivation of Mrs Appleyard herself. No doubt her story will unravel as the episodes go by.
But the girls themselves? Madelaine Quade, Irma Leopold and, especially, Miranda Reid are mischievous, ill-suited to the Victorian ideal of seen and not heard. They’re at an age where their sexuality is burgeoning, and are beginning to understand that men want them, whether it be at a fancy fete (where Miranda is very close to being sexually assaulted) or a school trip. All men have eyes on them, from soldiers to members of the establishment.
And Mrs Appleyard has eyes on them, too. There seems to be an element of jealousy in play in their relationship, perhaps Appleyard is envious of their purity and the girls’ stage in life, where nothing is tainted. I got the sense that Appleyard craved a new beginning, and being close to these teenage girls made her both hopeful and resentful at the same time.
This tension made her clamp down harder on them. So much so, when she banned Miranda’s friend Sara from going on a Valentine’s Day picnic to nearby Hanging Rock, the teen blackmailed her – an item from her past was found (a small tin, we didn’t get to see what was inside) and presented to her, inferring that Miranda knew the true nature of her past, or at least part of it.
But so to Hanging Rock. The girls and a trio of teachers took a coach trip into the countryside, and despite a first half that was clunky and inelegantly told, this is when things started to get interesting. With young Michael Fitzhubert, his valet, his father and partner on the opposite side of the river bank, the girls settled down and rolled out their picnic blankets. As they breathed in the musty forest air, things went strange: they all began to feel drowsy, watches stopped and an eerie breeze wafted through the camp. Miranda, Irma and Madelaine insisted on going up to take a closer look at the rock, and Edith, not one of the cool crew, insisted on going with them. They breezed thruogh the forest like ghosts, their long white summer dresses flowing thrugh the verdant green.
It wasnt long until Edith ran back to camp, screaming. Something had happened.
Something had happened.
It was a creepy sequence, full of supernatural portent. What happens next we’ll have to wait and see, but I found the first episode to be a bit of a head-scratcher: there’s plenty of intrigue and a central mystery to keep you insterested, but these modern affectations (the music and the titles) felt out of place and, as much as I like her, I also felt that Natalie Dormer was miscast – she plays sneaky very well, but she didn’t quite have that stern matriarch gravitas to her. And up until the Hanging Rock sequence, it all felt a bit out of sync. I’m interested to see what happens though, and how they will strecth out this story to fill out six episodes.